Making History Child Friendly

The August/September issue of Canada’s History recently landed in my mailbox.  A short article, “Genealogy Can be Child’s Play” by Paul Jones inspired me to spend some time considering children and public history.  Jones’ article talks about interesting children in family history through the use of age appropriate activities that are engaging, active, and ultimately easy to undertake for the whole family.

I agree with Jones that inspiring a sense of family history and understanding of ones roots can be a very valuable part of any upbringing.  I also think it is important for children of all ages to be exposed to local and national historical narratives. Looking back at my childhood makes me extremely grateful for my parents attempts to make history and learning fun, even during the summertime. 

One of my earliest memories of experiencing history as a child involves my parents taking me and my siblings to the Dufferin County Museum which was ten minutes from our home.  I don’t remember many details about the trip, but I do remember being fascinated by an exhibit on old toys and how different those toys were from the ones I played with at home. 

Fast forward a few years and my Brownie troop made a trip to the same museum.  This time in addition to being able to look at the collection on display the group was given a ‘behind the scenes’ tour that included being able to see the archival and artifact storage areas.   Seeing something that was normally off limits definitely tickled my childhood interest.  These early positive experiences at the Dufferin County Museum are one of the many reasons why later volunteered at the Museum and eventually became involved in public history.

Not all public history spaces are immediately conducive to children.  Living museums and historic sites with interpreters tend to have more hands on activities that appeal to the tactile nature of many kids.  More traditional archives and museums need to work at making their spaces kid friendly.  Text panels and things secured in display cases can be interesting, but getting an eight year old to stand and look at them is almost impossible at times. 

Running children specific programming and workshops can be a huge step towards making history accessible to children.  However, not all museums and archives have the staff or resources to make this possible.  Even offering small dress-up or colouring stations amongst other exhibits can help make a trip to the museum enjoyable for children.  Similarly, including outdoor space or outdoor activities as part of the standard tour can help make a museum visit child friendly.

Developing a teaching collection of duplicate or replica artifacts can allow children to actually touch and hold things.  For example, setting up a bunch of old typewriters (duplicate or not historically significant ones) for children to type on can be a great way for children to see an old form of technology in use. Teaching collections can work in museums or as part of an archives program.

Archives do not immediately scream children play space.  But it is possible to run programming out of archives that is geared to children.  Many archives have school instruction programs, behind the scenes tours, or introduction to local history programs that expose children to history in a fun way.  Many of these
programs do require staff time, but the partnerships and future patrons that can develop out of these outreach activities are well worth the effort.

What are some of your most memorable childhood history moments?